Good Book

On the Reverend Dr. Patrick S. Cheng and “Radical Love”

“Radical Love,” by Patrick S. Cheng (New York: Seabury Books, 2011); cover design by Laurie Klein Westhafer

The intersection of radical identity and Christianity is an intellectual space that has always intrigued me, even as I feel at times underqualified to appreciate its more recondite nuances. Part of my fascination stems from a sense that the crosscurrents of formal theology and social identity are somewhat mysterious, invisible to the public at large: most of us know that Pope Francis, for example, seems to be edging towards a more broadly inclusive idea of Catholicism, but at heart we think of Christianity as being conservative, staid, even a little… quaint. In college I was fortunate to be able to seek out a reasonably rigorous education in certain aspects of Protestant theology… but that was a quarter century ago. So it is a bracing experience for me, at least, to read a book like Patrick S. Cheng’s Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology.

Dr. Cheng is an Episcopalian priest, a Yale-educated theologian, and a gay Asian American, and thus brings a multifarious set of perspectives to the idea of queer theology. He is the possessor of what seems to me a deeply erudite and powerful mind; more to the point, he is a lively, conversational, and even humorous writer whose prose style in this slender volume is a model of unpretentious clarity.

Cheng’s outline of his vision of a queer theology is so spritely and engaging that it resists summary, but nonetheless a brief precis is worth attempting. The basis of Cheng’s book is the startling assertion that Christianity is itself essentially queer, because it is engaged in the breaking down of boundaries: between the human and divine, the temporal and the eternal, and so on. For Cheng, gender and sexuality are constructivist, meaning social constructs that are subject to fluidity, overturning, queering, rather than essentialist, meaning fixed or predetermined. The fundamental action of Christianity is a crossing over of boundaries, a act of giving or receiving radical love across the separations of identity. “Coming out,” writes Cheng, “is an act of radical love that parallels how God reveals Godself to through revelation.”

This clumsy summary does not do justice to the subtlety of Cheng’s argument, which he applies methodically through his five chapters to the elements of revelation, the Trinity, sin, Christ, Mary, atonement, the Holy Spirit, sacraments, and eschatology (the chapter on Mary is especially fascinating as an adventurous, even playful, exercise in creative reclamation).

An additional strength of this little book is the way Cheng has drawn deeply from a vast array of queer theologians who have come before him; the book is almost a super-annotated summary of queer theology, a deeply allusive conspectus that would serve admirably as a reference and source for further investigation. Most important to a lay reader like me, though, is the sense that thinkers and writers like Cheng are continuing to bring Christian thinking into the new century with rigor and purpose; a blessing, indeed.

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